Ghost in the Machine

the ghost writer 2 Ghost in the Machine The Ghost Writer
Running time 128 minutes
Written by Robert Harris and Roman Polanski
Directed by Roman Polanski
Starring  Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Kim Cattrall, Olivia William

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Can one put aside all the turmoil and controversy swirling around Roman Polanski while watching his latest film The Ghost Writer? Not very easily: The 76-year-old director was in the midst of postproduction when he was apprehended by Swiss police in 2009, and had to finish the film while under house arrest. It’s impossible to know whether this affected the finished product (based on the Robert Harris best seller), which has moments of heart-pounding suspense and brief glimmers of greatness, thanks to fine performances by Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan and Olivia Williams, but overall feels uneven, sprawling and strangely incomplete.

Mr. McGregor plays the unnamed protagonist, the “Ghost” hired to finish the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lange (Pierce Brosnan). For various, incomprehensible reasons, he’s sent to the United States to hole up with Mr. Lange, his wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams), and his inappropriately close chief of staff (Kim Cattrell). The setting is supposed to be Martha’s Vineyard, but even if one didn’t know that Mr. Polanski hasn’t set foot on American soil since 1978, it’s pretty clear that the sandy beaches seen in the film are not Massachusetts. (It was filmed in Germany, and looks like it.) The Ghost finds himself in over his head fairly quickly: His predecessor drowned under mysterious circumstances, and Lange’s staff seems easily spooked and paranoid over the contents of the unfinished biography, which is kept under closely guarded lock and key. Before you know it, political cover-ups are unfolding, creepy intrigue is descending and we’re watching the best supporting performance by a car’s GPS system ever.

Mr. McGregor gets it all just right (and never seems to age at all), and it was a stroke of genius casting to put Mr. Brosnan as a maybe-shady politician. (Note to Hollywood: Brosnan as bad guy, think about it!) Ms. Cattrell’s English accent is surprisingly good, if a little distracting; Tom Wilkinson delivers perhaps the best scene in the film; and Ms. Williams—who’s been oddly missing since big roles in Rushmore and The Sixth Sense—ends up being perhaps the most complex of all the characters. And yet, and yet. There’s been buzz over the idea that the book/film is nothing but a thinly veiled swipe at the real-life former British prime minister, Tony Blair, but I’m guessing more moviegoers will be thinking about the real-life troubles of Mr. Polanski instead.

svilkomerson@observer.com